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There Were TWO Blizzards of 78. How Do They Compare?

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

Recently, I saw a Facebook post asking people if they remembered the blizzard of 1978 and if they did, where were they when it struck. Out of the handful of comments, half of them mentioned either Massachusetts or Rhode Island and the other half mentioned Michigan or Ohio.


One may think this was the same storm that tracked across the United States, but the fact of the matter is these were two completely separate storm complexes that formed about a week apart. So how do these two epic storms compare with each other?



FORMATION


Surface map of the lakes region blizzard

The first of the two blizzards was the one that struck the great lakes. In late January of 1978, the polar and subtropical jet streams merged after the polar jet surged southward. At the time this was happening, a low pressure system was developing over the southern states. The merger of the two jet streams opened the door for the storm to undergo bombogenesis, which is the rapid strengthening of a storm.


For a storm to be classified as "bombing out", the central pressure of the storm must drop at least 24 millibars in 24 hours. This storm dropped a massive 40 millibars during that time span. The storm surged northward toward the lakes region by January 26. The storm would swing into Canada after hitting the lakes region and dissipate by January 29. The storm would drop to 956 millibars, the third lowest central pressure in a storm in the United States not associated with a tropical cyclone.


Satellite image of the Blizzard of 2018, this is likely similar to what the Blizzard of 1978 looked like

About a week after the lakes region blizzard dissipated over Canada, an extratropical

cyclone formed off the southern United States coast. As the storm began working up the coast, it merged with an arctic cold front. A mass of cold air was also sitting over the northeast as the system approached. These ingredients gave the storm ample opportunity to explode into a massive and extremely powerful blizzard.


The cyclone would become a quintessential New England nor'easter. The storm would intensify rapidly as it approached the New England coast. The storm's strength would become apparent in its wind speeds. The maximum sustained wind reached 86mph with gusts exceeding 100mph. The central pressure would drop to 980 millibars. This blizzard seemed more like a category one hurricane, complete with an eye-like feature at the center. The storm would stall over New England due to a blocking high pressure over Canada.


SNOWFALL


Snow totals for both of these blizzards are sketchy at best. Measuring snowfall after a blizzard is extremely difficult due to the snow blowing all around and creating drifts. With that in mind, the lakes region blizzard dropped several feet of snow, with Michigan bearing the brunt.

Cars were buried by both blizzards

The highest amount reported during the storm is 52" in Muskegon, Michigan. This includes enhancements from lake effect snow during the storm. Some reports give Muskegon a total of 34" when not including the lake effect influence. Michigan, Indiana and Ohio all saw massive snow totals from the storm. The extreme winds (which will be discussed more in the next section) created snow drifts upwards of 20-25 feet in places across these three states. Up to 100,000 cars were abandoned on highways across the region.


New England's blizzard saw equally impressive snow totals. The south shore of Massachusetts and Rhode Island saw the greatest amounts. These areas saw upwards of three feet of snow, with a highest report of 40". Most of southern New England, as well as southern New York, saw at least two feet of snow, with the mountains of northern New England also seeing two plus feet.

A road in Ipswitch, MA in 1978

This blizzard also caused very high drifts, with reports up to 20 feet in places. Some people recall climbing out of two story windows to walk on the drifts. These drifts stranded cars on highways for days, many major roads were blocked for up to a week after the storm. Numerous roofs in both blizzards collapsed or were damaged by the storms.



WIND


Both of these blizzards had very similar winds, with gusts over hurricane force at the height of the storms. An ore carrier stranded on Lake Erie reported sustained winds of 86mph with gusts of 111mph. These winds are nearly identical to New England's blizzard winds. As a matter of fact, sustained winds in New England's blizzard was also 86mph, recorded on Cape Cod.

A plane was flipped by wind at the Akron Municipal Airport in Ohio

The winds over land in the Great Lakes region were not quite as strong as the ore carrier reported, however, it was still intense. Winds were frequently sustained at 35-50mph with gusts as high as 60-65mph across Ohio. Cleveland Airport saw a maximum gust of 82mph.


Among the biggest problems caused by the winds in the Great Lakes was wind chills. An arctic cold front dropped into the region on January 26. This, combined with the intense blizzard winds, created wind chills as low as -50 to -60 degrees across Ohio. This made being outside for just a few minutes dangerous. The winds also caused thousands of trees and utility poles to break, causing prolonged power outages during an outbreak of arctic air.


Wind chills in New England were not nearly as extreme, with temperatures hovering around 0 to 20 degrees in places. While the winds were not nearly as cold as the lakes region storm, it was more damaging. The winds of New England's blizzard was very similar to that of a category two hurricane along the coast.

Coastal damage in Hull, MA in 1978

Gusts along the coast reached 110mph along the Massachusetts coast. This, along with high tides, caused some of the worst coastal flooding and damage a non-tropical cyclone can produce. Again, the shoreline looked more like a hurricane had just moved onshore. Flooding from the 1978 blizzard set numerous records across New England. These records would sit unchallenged for 40 years until the blizzard of 2018 came along, nearing or breaking 1978's records.


A big difference between the 1978 and 2018 blizzards in New England, as it pertains to coastal impacts, was the duration. Since 1978's storm stalled over New England, the flooding persisted through multiple high tide cycles. These high tides were exasperated by the fact that the tides were at their astronomical peak.


IMPACT


Both of the 1978 blizzards paralyzed their respective regions. The impact on roads in each storm is very similar. As stated in the snowfall section, up 100,00 cars were said to be abandoned along Ohio and Indiana roads. On January 26, the Indiana State Police considered all roads in the state closed and warned everyone to stay home. The entire Ohio Turnpike was closed for the first time ever.

An abandoned car in Ohio

Those with snowmobiles were asked to bring doctors and nurses to work. The Michigan National Guard was called in to help rescue stranded motorists. Travelling by air and rail was impossible as well. The Indianapolis International Airport was shut down and an Amtrak train got stranded.


Several universities in the region canceled classes, which was very rare back then. Some public schools in Indiana remained closed for up to three weeks after the storm. After the storm's passing, at least 70 people had been killed, including 51 in Ohio alone.


In New England, the 1978 storm was, and still is, the biggest one storm snowfall in Providence, RI's history. The storm is Boston's second biggest storm ever, 27.1 inches fell in the city. The storm was number one until the blizzard of 2003 dropped a half inch more than 1978.


Much like the lakes region blizzard, road, air and rail traffic came to a standstill for up to a week after the storm. Thousands of houses were damaged or destroyed, mainly at the coastline. All roads in Connecticut and Massachusetts were closed, only to be used for emergencies for three days after the storm. Like in the lakes region, the national guard was called in to help recovery efforts. Upwards of 100 people lost their lives across the northeast as a result of this storm.

Cars abandoned along the highway in Massachusetts

The Regional Snowfall Index is a scale used to assess societal impact of snowstorms. The index was first used in 2014 and replaced the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale. Since its creation in 2014, 500 winter storms dating back to 1900 have been assigned an RSI value. The higher the value, the more impactful the storm. Based on the value, winter storms are assigned a category, like hurricanes. The categories range from 0 to 5.


Of the 500 storms that have an RSI value, only 26 have been assigned the label of category 5, which is described as "extreme". Both of the 1978 blizzards are among the 26 category 5 storms. The lakes region blizzard holds the distinction of having the highest RSI value of any storm in history, 39.07. Meanwhile, New England's 1978 blizzard has the third lowest RSI value of any category 5 storm, 18.53. A storm must have an RSI value of at least 18 to be considered category 5.



NAMES


While both of these regions call their storm the blizzard of 78, in historical context, the lakes region storm is known as the Great Blizzard of 78 while New England's storm is just the Blizzard of 1978. This is likely due to the fact that in general, more snow fell in the lakes region storm.


The RSI value difference also plays a role as the lakes region storm is over 20 points higher than New England. On the "United States Snow" section of this site under weather history, the lakes region storm is listed as the "Great Blizzard of 78" while New England is "Blizzard of 1978", following historical precedence.


CONCLUSION


The overall impact and legacy of these storms are cemented in each region's history. Whenever an exceptionally bad blizzard rolls through each of these regions, memories of 1978 always float to the surface and comparisons are made. Both storms are widely considered to be the benchmark of blizzards for their respective regions. It's rather remarkable that two such historic storms formed within a week of each other.

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